The Olympians of Siluria

(DISCLAIMER: this is an article I wrote for the newsletter of the Palaeontological Association. If you hate fossils and sport you will not want to read it.)

The Olympians of Siluria

In Ludlow, in July 2011, the Silurians came home.  A combined meeting of two geological groups (the InternationalSubcommission on Silurian Stratigraphy and the new IGCP Project 591, in case you were wondering) brought together those with an interest in the mid-Palaeozoic, in the Marches of Murchison.

At the same time, down the road in Much Wenlock, a different group re-united, one which could lay claim to just as much longevity, history and even, after a fashion, geology. And they too could boast they were coming home.

They weren't Silurians, however, but – by geography at least – a rather more incongruous-sounding group.

They were the Olympians.


Olympian medals, Silurian-style

With London 2012 looming large on the horizon, crowbarring such words into reports becomes increasingly common, and the plans for next summer become more complicated.  Should one avoid the country like the plague, and head for palaeontological places well-away from hype and high jumps, or should one embrace the extravaganza of top-level sport and culture?

It never crossed my mind that there was somewhere that combined it all, a spot where one could try a dry run, a year in advance.  And I certainly never thought I'd discover a rich geological seam within the Olympic movement.  But then I'd never thought of attending the Wenlock Olympian Games.

Having written a Ph.D. on fossils from the Much Wenlock Limestone Formation, I'd no excuse for my ignorance of an event that began in the Shropshire town 160 years ago.  It's not as if the place is exactly large.  Yet I knew next to nothing of William Penny Brookes, and the extraordinary events he started in the mid-19th century.

Brookes was one of those Victorian figures who achieved so much you can't help wondering if he eschewed sleep entirely.  Over a working life of more than 70 years, he served as the town's doctor, Justice of the Peace, Commissioner for Roads, Railway Company Director, Gas Company Chairman, School Director, Museum Curator, and manager of a new sewerage system.  A dynamic, egalitarian figure, 'The King of Wenlock' turned his home town from a rural backwater into a modern centre of innovation and enlightenment.

More than anything else, though, Brookes was a tireless promoter of education and health.  In 1841, he founded the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society, a library for the use and benefit of all, particularly local farm-workers and quarrymen.  A few years later, this developed into the Wenlock Olympian Society, with Brookes promoting a revival of the Ancient Greek philosophy of moral, physical and intellectual improvement.

Geology played its part in the Society's establishment, as Brookes wished to keep the workers from the local limestone quarries out of the pubs.  According to Catherine Beale's excellent book on the topic, Born Out Of Wenlock, the town had “an unenviable reputation for drunkenness.” 

By offering athletic competition, Brookes hoped to encourage temperance.  “The working man's only possession is his health,” he noted, and heavy drinking ensured that many of his fellow townsmen died young.

Late Wenlock

With this in mind, he organized the first Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850, and if you think commercialism is a modern phenomenon, think again.  Brookes got the mine companies to sponsor his games, and put on specially arranged events exclusively for their employees.

As a consequence, any quarrymen imagining the Games might be a doddle compared to a day's work were in for a surprise: Brookes' mine-endorsed version of the shot putt involved a 35 lb lump of Wenlock limestone.

“The interesting thing,” WOS archivist Chris Cannon told me, “is that they threw it, measured it, and then threw it again with the other hand, measuring that to give the total.”  The winner was the man whose combined left- and right-handed throws reached the greatest distance.

Limestone milestones and all, the Games were a success, and ran again the next year, competitors coming from all over the country to take part.  By the 1860s, interest had bloomed so much that the National Olympian Association was formed, and a Games held in London's Crystal Palace.

They didn't run every year, but Brookes never stopped the Wenlock Games, and nor did he cease his efforts to get physical education included in the state schools' curriculum.  Eventually, in the 1890s, as an old man, his petitions received parliamentary approval, and a French nobleman with similar interests came to speak to the wise Wenlockian.

The visitor from across the Channel had no initial interest in the Olympian Games, only the promotion of physical education in schools, but when he saw what went on in Wenlock, a seed was sown.  And shortly afterwards, Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded what became the international Olympic movement.

The first Games, in Athens in 1896, came a year after Brookes had died, aged 86, and enabled de Coubertin to take rather more credit for the idea than he deserved.

Historians of sport and true Olympians, however, recognize this Shropshire lad's true place.  2011 was the 125th Wenlock Olympian Games, with camera crews from across the globe descending on the town to find out more about the father of the modern Olympiad.  All of which is why Wenlock is now not only a district of Shropshire and a geological epoch, but a 2012 Olympic mascot too.

Wenlock, Ludlow boundary.

Being an inveterate lover of Wenlock weirdos, I couldn't help but warm to this odd, grey, one-eyed creature.  Without a mouth, its functional morphology was problematical, but I'm sure stranger things have turned up in the Herefordshire Lagerstatte a few miles down the road.  And buying a cuddly Wenlock from the online shop meant I could amuse myself with a series of Olympian-Silurian juxtapositions:

Mascot on the edge of the conference town? Wenlock-Ludlow boundary.

Mascot in a Shropshire graveyard? Late Wenlock.

Mascot tripping over with an exclamation of “D'oh!”?  Wenlock: Homerian stage.

Fellow delegates looked understandably bemused as I carried my new friend around the ISSS/IGCP conference, but forking out those few pounds had a tangible geological benefit.  As part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, the Much Wenlock Museum is undergoing a major overhaul.  What's more, not only will William Penny Brookes be lauded there for his Philhellenic philosophy, but also for his love of natural history: his collections of local plants and fossils will take pride of place.

Wenlock: Homerian stage.

Palaeontology has made it into the cultural Olympiad elsewhere too.  The 'Discovering Places' campaign of 2010 featured a couple of geological expeditions, whilst next May will see Lyme Regis launch the Jurassic Coast Earth Festival.

Tapping into the fact that the Olympic sailing events will be in Weymouth and Portland, the Devon and Dorset World Heritage site will feature numerous cultural activities.  Our very own association will be involved, though I'm sad to say that support for a Palaeolympics hasn't been forthcoming.  This is despite a fossiliferous 'Faster, Higher, Stronger' being a sure-fire crowd pleaser*.

Talking of fire and crowds, keep an eye out for the Olympic flame, too.  In 2010, the Vancouver Winter Olympic torch relay took the burning stick fully trans-Canada, and I had the pleasure of watching it sweep past the university Earth Sciences building in St John's.  I'm not sure of the 2012 itinerary, but it must get within spitting distance of at least one geology department.

If it doesn't, though, you can always become a geological Olympian yourself.  Birmingham Earth Science alumnus Paul Manning took that very route, eschewing rocks and fossils for a bike, and pedalling to a series of Olympic medals.  This culminated in gold in the team pursuit at the 2008 Beijing Games.

Cycling seems like a perfectly palaeontological pursuit, one that might have seen Croll of Scotland or Milankovitch of Serbia take the laurel wreath, but maybe Manning is unique.  I certainly don't know of any podium-placed palaeontologists.  Perhaps the definition needs broadening, then.  Maybe we can erect our own echinoderm pentathlon, or crustacean decathlon.  And what are ammonoid and conodont biostratigraphy if not a form of synchronized swimming?

In the mean time, pay a visit to the Welsh Borderlands and immerse yourself in these amazing tracts of 19th century history, in the annals of an era when anything was possible, even in tiny Shropshire towns.  And if you peer carefully into the shadows along the Olympian Trail, who knows?  Perhaps you'll spot the philanthropic King of Wenlock in conversation with the self-centred King of Siluria?  I know whose team I'm on.